Disbelief, loneliness, fear, anger, despair, faith, hope and love. These feelings were all too real when I first heard the words “you have a liver tumor” and later “it turned out to be cancer.” Not once, but twice. Sometimes I wonder which was worse: facing cancer for the first time or dealing with a recurrence. The recurrence is scarier because you know what is ahead of you and how tough it is going to be. But you have no other option but fight for your life and that’s exactly what I did.
During a routine checkup, a mass was spotted on my liver. I was only 28 years old and had never spent a night in a hospital. The idea of having aggressive surgery was scary enough and nothing could prepare me for what was coming ahead: twelve hours in the operating room, massive blood loss, flat-liners, five days in intensive care, fluids in my lungs, one month in the hospital and sessions of chemoembolization. For all my life I had always been so healthy and strong, what had gone wrong?
My first reaction was to look for people who had gone through the same problem and learn from them, the only issue was that they were nowhere to be found. Liver cancer is quite rare in the western world, especially among young women. I never felt so alone in my life. My family had no history of cancer and just to hear the word was like I had been given a death sentence. My parents were destroyed. How could this happen to us? My grandparents, my siblings, all our friends and family were shocked and grief-stricken, but eager to help and it was right there that my recovery began. I never felt so loved. Actually I had never imagined so many people cared so much about me. My hospital room was always full of people and flowers. People took turns taking care of me and rallied around me to show their love and support. It was then too that I found my faith, which had lain dormant for so long. I felt the presence of God in every step of the way. I also developed a very strong bond with other cancer patients that until recently did not share a lot in common with me. We felt as if we were members of a special group and became very close. I found out things about me that I never knew existed. I discovered an inner-strength and a resilience that I never knew I had and was proud of it. I embarked on a tough journey that proved to be very rewarding. Little by little I healed my body and my soul.
Time went by and I carried on with my life happier than ever before. While at that hospital I vowed never to take a day for granted and have kept my promise and counted my blessings ever since. All was well. I found the man of my dreams, I had the perfect fairytale wedding and was ready of the “happily ever after” part but that would have been too easy.
Five years after my surgery I was declared “cured” and felt as if a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Life was good and I was healthy again. Until that hot December day, while I was visiting my family in Brazil for Christmas and decided to get scanned “just in case”. What started as another routine exam turned out to be the hardest day of my life. Five years later, when I was supposed to be “all clear,” the doctor spotted another tumor on my liver. What happened to “happily ever after?” What happened to the illusion that my life was going to be perfect after my struggle with cancer? Who told me the nightmare was over? I felt so stupid for believing that because of all I had been through, I had earned the right to be healthy and happy again. For some reason, I thought that after my battle with cancer I had this “get out of jail” wild card in my hands and nothing bad could ever happen to me again. But I was wrong, so wrong.
I will never forget what I felt in that cold dark hospital room. I felt as if my life was over again. I remember walking out of that room and looking at my father, my vision blurred by my tears. I can still see the look of disbelief on his face. “No, not again,” he said. “You’ll be OK.” I ran home to my husband who had been waiting for me all day. We both had tears in our eyes and hugged each other and cried out loud. We had been married for less than a year. We were planning to have our first baby and now what? My mother tried to fight her tears to no avail. None of us could believe “it” had stricken once more. We all had been down that road before but no one ever thought we would have to go through it again.
But we knew exactly what we had to do and we did it: CT scans, blood work, endless doctor’s appointments, desperate prayers. But if during my first surgery I kept much of my struggles to myself and my immediate family, this time I was decided to reach out for my family and friends and those who loved me. I knew I would need all the love and all the prayers I could get. I started writing as a way to come to terms with the latest news and was very surprised when people decided to use it to express their love and support. Since then, I became a firm believer in reaching out and opening up and telling your story. It worked miracles for me and that’s why I decided to do it again now.
My husband kept my friends up to date on my progress sending daily emails and even pictures. He also told me about all the wonderful messages people were sending my way. How much people cared about me, how much they were praying for me and sending their best wishes. I remember very vividly, when I was taken to that operating room I felt strangely calm, as if someone was guiding me all the way. At that moment I knew all our prayers had been answered and I was going to be just fine.
The surgery was long and complicated but my recovery was nothing short of a miracle. The tumor was removed after six or seven hours and in just a day or so I left the ICU. Once I got to my room, I felt home. I felt well and I kept picturing myself walking out of that hospital on my own. I would close my eyes and see myself walking out of there on my way home. I imagined what I would wear, what kind of day it was going to be and who would be there to pick me up. Just two days after checking into the room I was released. And exactly as I had imagined, I left that hospital, where it all had started more than five years ago, walking on my own and a step closer to my complete cure.
It’s been almost five months since my last surgery and life is back to normal. As unbelievable as it would seem just a few months ago, I feel that I can have dreams again. More than that, I feel empowered to know that they can and they will come true. I feel blessed and I feel loved. I feel strong and happy. And above it all, I know that I have a long road ahead. I want to use my story to show others that there is life after a cancer diagnosis and that this life can be much more fulfilling and interesting than the one we had before.
Dani Duran is a two time liver cancer survivor